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  • Culture and Tradition

    Tet has become so familiar, so sacred to the Vietnamese that when spring arrives, the Vietnamese, wherever they may be, are all thrilled and excited with the advent of Tet, and they feel an immense nostalgia, wishing to come back to their homeland for a family reunion and a taste of the particular flavors of the Vietnamese festivities. Those who have settled down abroad all turn their thoughts to their home country and try to celebrate the festivities in the same traditional way as their family members and relatives to relieve their nostalgia, never forgetting the traditions handed down from generation to generation.

    Since the first days of the lunar year are thought to set the tone for the next 12 months, everyone strives to plan the perfect Tet. Tet starts on the first day of the first lunar month and is the first season of the new year (according to the lunar calendar), and therefore it is also known as the Tet Nguyen Dan, literally meaning Fete of the First Day, or the Tet Tam Nguyen, literally meaning Fete of the Three Firsts.

    Streets during the days before Tet become more crowded and bustling with activities. Everyone is in a rush to gel a haircut, buy new clothes, spruce up their homes, visit friends, settle outstanding debts, and stock up on traditional Tet delicacies. Businesses hang festive red banners, which read “Chuc Mung Nam Moi” (Happy New Year) and city streets are festooned with colored lights. Stalls spring up all over town to sell nothing but cone -shaped kumquat bushes. Others sell flowering peach trees and “mut” (candied fruits and jams), traditional cakes, and fresh fruit and flowers.

    In the South, they place a coconut, a papaya, a mango and a custard apple on the family altar. Spoken in the southern dialect, the names of these fruit form a prayer for success and fulfillment. The Tet of the New Year is, above all, a holiday for the family. This is an opportunity for the household genies to meet, those who have helped during the year, namely the Craft Creator who the deity responsible for introducing the family to its traditional career; the Land Genie who oversees the land where the family lives and the Kitchen God who cares for the family’s food. As legend has it, each year on December 23rd of the lunar calendar the Kitchen God takes a ride on a carp to the Heavenly Palace to make a report on the affairs of the household on earth and then returns on December 30th to welcome the New Spring.

    Tet is also an opportunity to welcome deceased ancestors back for a family reunion with their descendants. People place offerings of food and drinks on their ancestral altars, light incense, and invite their ancestors to join the family’s celebrations.

    Finally, Tet is a good opportunity for family members to meet. On New Year’s Eve, family members gather for a dinner of traditional foods like “banh chung” (a square cake made of sticky rice stuffed with beans and pork), “mang” (a soup of boiled bamboo shoots and fried pork) and “xoi gac” (orange sticky rice). This is followed by a visit to the local pagoda and perhaps an outing to see the town’s fireworks. This custom has become sacred and secular and, therefore, no matter where they are or whatever the circumstances, family members find ways to come back to meet their loved ones.

    The traditional attire of the Vietnamese tends to be very simple and modest. Men wear brown shirts and white trousers. Their headgear is simply a piece of cloth wrapped around the head and their footwear consists of a pair of plain sandals. For formal ceremonies men would have two additional items, a long gown with slits on each side and a turban, usually in black or brown made of cotton or silk.

    In feudal times, there were strict dress codes. Ordinary people were not allowed to wear clothes with dyes other than black, brown or white. Costumes in yellow were reserved for the King. Those in purple and red were reserved for high ranking court officials, while dresses in blue were exclusively worn by petty court officials.

    Men’s fashion has gradually changed along with social developments. The traditional set of a long gown and turban gave way to more modern looking suits, while business shirts and trousers have replaced traditional long sleeved shirts and wide trousers. Traditional costumes still exist and efforts are increasingly being made to restore traditional festivals and entertainment, which incorporate traditional costumes. Young women traditionally wear light brown-colored short shirts with long black skirts. Their headgear consists of a black turban with a peak at the front. To make their waist look smaller, they tightly fasten a long piece of pink or violet cloth. On formal occasions, they wear a special three layered dress called an “ao dai”, a long gown with slits on either side. The outer garment is a special silk gown called an “ao tu than” which is brown or light brown in color with four slits divided equally on its lower section. The second layer is a light yellow gown and the third layer is a pink gown. When a woman wears her three gowns, she fastens the buttons on the side and leaves those on the chest unfastened so that it forms a shaped collar. This allows her to show the different colors on the upper part of the three gowns. Beneath the three gowns is a bright red brassiere which is left exposed to cover the woman’s neck.

    Over time, the traditional “ao dai” has gone through certain changes. Long gowns are now carefully tailored to fit the body of a Vietnamese woman. The two long slits along the side allow the gown to have two free floating panels in the front and at the back of the dress. The floating panels expose a long pair of white silk trousers. An elegant looking conical palm hat, which is traditionally known as a “non bai tho” (a hat with poetry written on it), is worn as part of a woman’s formal dress. This traditional conical hat is particularly suitable for a tropical country such as Vietnam, where fierce sunshine and hard rain are commonplace. To make a conical hat, a hat maker chooses young palm leaves that have been dried under continued sunshine. Attached beneath the almost transparent layers of dried palm leaves is a drawing of a small river wharf. Below the drawing, there is a piece of poetry to be recited by the hat wearer.

    In recent years some foreign fashions have been introduced to Vietnam; however, the traditional “ao dai” remains preferable to women in both urban and rural settings. In general, Vietnamese clothing is very diverse. Every ethnic group in Vietnam has its own style of clothing. Festivals are the occasion for all to wear their favorite clothes. Over thousands of years, the traditional clothing of all ethnic groups in Vietnam has changed, but each ethnic group has separately maintained their own characteristics. In the mountain areas, people live in houses built on stilts, wear trousers or skirts and indigo vests with design motifs imitating wild flowers and beasts. In the northern uplands and the Central Highlands, the young women make skirts and vests with beautiful and colorful decorations in a style convenient for farm work on the terraced slopes and valleys.

    One of the most interesting features of Vietnamese rural areas is the village markets where agricultural products are bought and sold. These markets operate on a fixed day, week, or month. In the Mekong Delta Provinces, floating markets are very popular as produce is carried and sold on boats or junks. In mountainous areas, village markets are also a place of entertainment where ethnic villagers in colorful clothes gather to dance and sing folk songs.

    Country Markets
    Most rural communities in Vietnam have a market place. Such markets are often called “Cho Que” (countryside market). There are three types of countryside market, a fair, an afternoon and an evening market. Fairs, however, are periodically held. These fairs only occur on days with a three or eight in them. For example, these markets would only occur on the 3rd, 8th, 13th, 18th, 23rd, and 28th days of the lunar month. Recently, the major fair markets have also opened on Sundays. The larger markets always attract a good crowd. Apart from local produce, expensive commodities imported from outside are available. Evening markets (Cho Hom) attract fewer people who usually only want to buy necessities such as fruits, oil, salt, vegetables, and food. The final market gathers in the afternoon and is known as “afternoon market” (Cho Chieu).

    Highland Markets
    Markets in the highland areas where large groups of ethnic minorities live are not only places for buying and selling but also cultural gatherings. People may spend many days getting to the market. These markets are multifaceted as people play flutes, dance and sing. This is also a time to meet and make friends. These courting opportunities at the market are referred to as “Love Markets” (Cho Tinh).

    Floating Markets Floating markets (“Cho Noi”) are fascinating and quite popular in the Cuu Long (Mekong) River Delta Area. A floating market is formed when hundreds of boats converge to buy and sell fresh produce. Trading activities take place all day, but the best and most frenetic time to view one is in the morning. The produce includes various fresh fruit such as rambutan, oranges, pomeloes, mangosteen, durian, and special food such as freshwater fish, turtles, snakes, field crabs and shrimp. At the “Cho Noi”, all trading activities take place in boats. Large “Cho Noi” take place at Phung Hiep, Nga Bay, Phong Dien, Cai Rang (in Can Tho), and Cai Be (in Tien Giang). Most agricultural produce and fruits at “Cho Noi” are sold to wholesalers, who then resell them to food processing factories or ship them to Hanoi and the Northern provinces.

    Vietnam is endowed with a rich culture stemming from a wet rice civilization. Thus, the traditions of the Vietnamese people are closely attached to their villages and native lands. The definition for ‘ villages and native lands’ means different things in the spoken and written language of each ethnic group in Vietnam.

    Villages and native lands are defined as Lang in the Vietnamese language, Chieng in the Tay-Thai language, Ban in the Muong language, and Buon Play in the languages of several other ethnic minority groups inhabiting the Central Highlands. The Lang (village) is an extremely interwoven social unit. It is not only an administrative organization but an economic unit based on sections of farmland. Farmers living in the same village are closely linked by family, community or business.

    Thus, the habits, religious practices and festivals are all based on the origins of the village. Deep in the recess of every Vietnamese person’s memory are the permanent images of his or her village. It may be a Banyan tree standing at the front gate of the village or the bamboo groves surrounding it, deep water wells, the roof of the village temple, a distant mountain peak, a nearby river, paddy fields or the joyous sounds of the bustling village.